BOSTON — — A proposal that could have slashed Maryland's annual striped bass catch by more than 50 percent in 2012 was shelved Tuesday morning by the commission that oversees East Coast fisheries.
The 9-6 vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's striped bass board will most likely postpone any further discussion of a harvest reduction until 2013, when a new population assessment is due.
"I think it was appropriate," said Ed O'Brien, an official with the Maryland Charter Boat Association and the National Association of Charterboat Operators. "It puts pressure on the states to look at their own management to make sure they're doing all they can to protect the fish."
But supporters of the measure warned that the vote just delays the inevitable.
"We will wake up in two years — after the next stock assessment — and find out that things are much worse than they were, and that the needed cuts will be much bigger," said Bradford Burns, founder of Stripers Forever, a non-profit conservation group.
Striped bass, also known as rockfish, is the bay's flagship fish, a multi-million dollar industry and Maryland's state fish. Last year, Maryland recreational anglers caught 2.51 million pounds and watermen hauled in 2.1 million pounds.
Adult fish chasing food migrate up the coast to New England each spring and summer and return south in late fall to winter off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. But lately, anglers near the northern reaches of the striped bass run have complained that they are not catching fish.
The reason, they believe, is that anglers farther south are targeting the older, most productive females, leaving fewer spawners in the water.
Reacting to that public clamor, northern New England's representatives on the commission pushed for curtailment of striped bass fishing not only in the bay but also, to a lesser extent, along the entire coast. They contended that in addition to anecdotal evidence, recent declines in the overall catch and abundance coupled with adverse environmental conditions were signaling a population in trouble.
"We have a canary in the mine that will probably fall off its perch pretty soon," warned Dennis Abbott of New Hampshire as he urged fellow commissioners to send a reduction proposal out for public comment.
But other commissioners noted that biologists' reports indicate that striped bass are not being overfished and that the population remains above the threshold requiring action.
Further, they said, the number of striped bass born this year in the Chesapeake Bay, the spawning ground and nursery for more than three-quarters of the East Coast population, was phenomenal. Maryland recorded its fourth-highest number of juvenile fish since its survey began in 1954, and Virginia was at its highest level ever.
"You're not seeing striped bass in your backyard? Guess what, they're migratory. They move up and down the coast," said New York representative Pat Augustine. "To drive our decisions by emotions is not managing."
Still, a projection by commission scientists showed that under certain conditions, striped bass could reach the threshold of overfishing by 2017. And even under the best circumstances, it will take four or five years for this year's newborns to reach spawning age.
"We have green-light fishing that may be entering a yellow-light phase," said Jamie Geiger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "All in all, we're doing OK, but some caution is necessary."
Northern New England representatives offered an amendment that would have reduced the annual harvest by 13 percent, but it failed to gain traction.
The vote broke along geographic lines, with Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission siding with the majority to delay action. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service provided the margin of victory.
Maryland Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell said he wouldn't be surprised to see the issue raised again.
"I think we're OK now, but I think we have to keep our eye on this," he said.
Maryland Commissioner Bill Goldsborough said that if the board wants to manage with caution, it should vote on Wednesday afternoon to protect menhaden, the primary food source for striped bass.
"The biggest warning sign is that striped bass aren't getting enough to eat," said Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The best thing we can do for striped bass is leaving enough food in the water."